Five things to know about harness racing

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Friday, August 30, 2013

ELKHORN--The shadiest spot at the Walworth County Fair today will be under the grandstand.

Today's line-up includes harness racing at noon. To get the most from the experience, here are five things you'll need to know about the sport of harness racing.

1. The basics: Horses pull a small cart called a sulky twice around the track for a mile. The drivers control the horses through the use of reins, which are referred to as “lines” in harness racing. Drivers also control the horses by tapping their whip handles on the shafts of the sulkies.

2. A different kind of speed: In harness racing, horses don't gallop. Their gaits are either referred to as a “trot” or “pace,” said Gabe Wand, who has been the state's leading driver for the past four years.

Pacing horses' legs move in a lateral pattern. The right front and hind legs move forward at the same time and then the left front and hind legs move forward at the same time.

In trotting, the right front leg forward and the left hind move forward together and then the left front and right hind leg move forward.

The horses aren't supposed to gallop. If they do break into a gallop, the driver has to pull his sulky to the side until the horse resumes its gait.

3. A different kind of horse: Standardbred horses are used in harness racing.

“They've very muscular, very stocky,” Wand said.

While thoroughbreds are long and lean, standardbreds look as though they've been lifting weights at the gym. The muscles in their shoulders and hindquarters are well defined.

Originally, horses had to be taught their gaits. Now, genetics plays an important role in picking the best trotters or pacers, Wand said.

4. Racing strategy: It's not just about speed.

“You have to know the horse you're driving,” said Wand. “And you have to know the other drivers, too.”

Some horses like to start in front and stay in front, while others like to chase for the first half of the race and then take off for the last quarter-mile.

Drivers don't ever want to be boxed in, which means having competitors in front of them and at both sides.

At the Walworth County Fair, races involve anywhere from four to seven drivers.

5. Getting the most from the race: Root for a favorite.

“Obviously, it's a lot more fun if you have a stake in the winner; if you have somebody to root for,” Wand said.

At the fair, the horses and drivers all are introduced before the races. Find a horse you like, for whatever reason—you like the horse's name, the driver's outfit or you simply think the horse in question will win—and then cheer for them, Wand said.

“The finish is the most exciting part, of course,” Wand said.

After the race, spectators are encouraged to come back to the barns and meet the drivers and horses, Wand said.

Driver meet-and-greets also are held after the races in the grandstands, Wand said.

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